Could Your Son Have a Body Image Problem?

Teenage boy sitting on steps thinking about body appearance
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Male body image is an important topic. Just as the average female runway model has gotten thinner, the average male Playgirl model has gotten thinner and more muscular. Boys are feeling the pressure to look like the media images they see, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

Media Pressures

What is the perfect male body? If you watch TV or read a magazine, it's clear what is considered an ideal body for a man. Low body fat and lots of muscle make you look “cut” or "ripped”—and that is what is portrayed as attractive. Throw in a narrow waist and large shoulders, giving the body a V-shaped torso, and you have the idealized male body.

Where are our boys getting these ideas? Although there is not nearly enough research on this issue, some researchers are examining the messages our boys are getting. Men's bodies are being used more often to sell products-–products often unrelated to the body or personal care.

Our young boys are even being exposed to more unrealistic images of what a “man's” body is supposed to look like. In the past 20 years, action figures like G.I. Joe has become more muscular and their muscles are more defined. This has gone on to the point where if the action figure was a real person, it would be impossible for anyone to have the same proportions! If you look at any magazine, the male bodies are idealized and, like female bodies, airbrushed and tweaked to look as appealing as possible. From TV to magazines to beloved toys, it's difficult for our sons to avoid the images of what is thought to be a perfect body.

Cultural Differences

Are the media and our culture truly to blame? It seems that way. A 2005 study looked at the differences in body image in men from the West (the United States and Europe) versus men from Asian countries. It was found that men in Taiwan were more satisfied with their bodies and had a lower use of anabolic steroids compared to men in the West. The article suggests that the Taiwanese culture values men for their intellectual and cultural achievements, not just their bodies. Additionally, unlike in the U.S., there were no Taiwanese magazines for fitness or bodybuilding.

It makes sense that if men are being valued for things other than attractiveness, and that they aren't being shown idealized bodies that might not be attainable, that they would have a more accepting view of their own bodies.

Even if your son does not seem to be preoccupied with his appearance or exhibit behaviors which concern you, you can be certain that he has at least thought about his body image. A 2016 Australian study on children aged 12 to 18 found that nearly 50 percent of these teens admitted to concerns about their appearance.

Body Image of Boys vs. Girls

The answer to whether boys or girls are more dissatisfied with their body image is that is no one is sure. What we do know is that there is evidence that boys and men are beginning to feel the pressure to have a “perfect body," however it appears that girls tend to have more issues with body image.

Social Media

In addition to the school setting and TV shows, social media has added an entirely new way for teens to be exposed to the ideal body image while at the same time as being more concerned about their own appearance. A negative comment about a teen's appearance in response to update, for example, can be devastating.

One 2016 study looking at the impact of social media upon body image found that areas that were particularly problematic were viewing and uploading photos and seeking negative feedback via status updates for both girls and boys.

The Consequences of Expectations

Men are spending more time, money and energy on looking “good.” They are spending more money on fragrances, facial creams, hair products, hair replacements, and even plastic surgery. If your son is spritzing on a little more cologne, it is probably a healthy grooming habit. If your teen is talking about crash diets or liposuction, there might be more of a problem.

One large study looked at men's body satisfaction and how it related to depression, eating disturbances, use of performance-enhancing substances and low self-esteem. Not surprisingly, men who were dissatisfied with their bodies had higher rates of depression and eating disorders. Dissatisfied men used more performance-enhancing substances such as over-the-counter supplements or anabolic steroids and had lower self-esteem. The results of the study reflect what seems like common sense. If someone has a poor body image, he might take steps to change his body, even if it means restricting food to a dangerous degree or taking potentially harmful substances.

When to Worry

If your son seems to be preoccupied with his appearance, restricts what he eats, uses supplements, or exercises excessively, it is time to discuss body image with him.

If you feel as if his behavior is potentially harmful, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. She can help you handle this difficult issue, or refer you to a professional who can help.

Learn the facts and figures about anabolic steroid use in teens in the United States, and how to determine if your son may be using anabolic steroids as many parents are unaware that their teens are using these substances.

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